Sunday, September 18, 2016

50 Years Ago: Gemini 11

Beautiful blast-off of Gemini 11 on the Titan II rocket.
Just fifty years ago, astronauts Pete Conrad and Richard (Dick) Gordon lifted off from the LC-19 pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida.  The flight took place just an hour and a half after the blast-off of an Atlas-Agena mission from LC-14.

Atlas rocket carrying an Agena docking spacecraft lifts off from pad LC-14.
Busy times at the Cape. While Gemini 11 lifts off LC-19, in the distance you can see SA-500F, a dummy Saturn V rocket used to test the launch facilities of Pad LC-39A before actual missions begin.

A close-up view of the Gemini 11 Launch.
In a Gemini first, the manned capsule caught up to the Agena target vehicle 94 minutes after launch and docked without problems. The rapid flight to the docking vehicle was termed "direct ascent" rendezvous and docking, and is similar to the short 6-hour Soyuz flights used today for astronauts to reach the ISS in a minimal time. Once docked, the astronauts used the motor aboard the Agena to propel them into a higher record altitude of 850 miles, more than four times higher than the ISS orbits these days.
NASA publicity shot of Richard Gordon (L), and Pete Conrad (R).
The astronauts did not stay in the higher orbit. They docked and undocked a total of four times during the mission, and lowered their main orbital height to about 184 miles up. They then prepared for the main experiment of the mission, to simulate some artificial gravity using a spinning of the combined spaceships.
At a press conference, Pete Conrad uses models of the Gemini and Agena spacecraft to demonstrate how the tether between the vehicle would be used to keep the craft together while spinning around an axis point.
In the first mission EVA, Richard Gordon exited the Gemini capsule to attach a tether between the two vehicles. During the two hour plan for the spacewalk, he needed to move over to the Agena's docking collar and remove the 100-meter tether, then attach it to the prepared points on the Agena dock and the Gemini nose. Unfortunately, the activities of the EVA turned out to be much more fatiguing and problematic than the training had suggest it would be. The EVA had to be shortened, but Gordon successfully connected the tether.
Picture of Gordon preparing to exit the Gemini spacecraft.
Image of Gordon moving between the two spacecraft. Most of the footage of Gordon outside the craft, taken by Conrad, was of poor quality because of poor visibility in his window. 
The slack in the tether is very apparent in this image taken by Gordon.
The tether experiment did not go as planned. They were never able to get the taught tether stability needed to fully generate a proper rotation, but the spinning they were able to achieve gave them a measurable amount of centrifugal force.  Later, in a second EVA, Gordon was able to perform a non-tiring series of experiments and photography sessions.
High-quality image of Australia from Gemini 11.
Moonrise over the curvature of the Earth.
Three days after launch, the mission ended in a great example of the advances America was making with computer technology. In the first fully-computerized automatic re-entry, the Gemini 11 spacecraft precisely landed only 2.8 miles from its planned position, close by the recovery ship USS Guam.
USS Guam alongside the spacecraft and recovery frogmen.
Gordon and Conrad on the deck of USS Guam.
An interesting photo I found comparing the size difference between the two-man Gemini spacecraft and the original one-astronaut Mercury space capsule. Keep in mind that the white-colored service module section behind the Gemini astronauts did not return to Earth with the capsule but were destroyed after separation and re-entry.



Monday, September 12, 2016

Expedition 48 Returns to Earth

It's good to be home. The space voyagers rest and remember how gravity affects their bodies after being helped from their Soyuz return capsule.

After a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 48 has safely returned to Earth to being debriefings and analysis of their medical situation and the performance of their tasks. The Russian spacecraft was TMA-20M, which had left the Earth last March on the 129th Soyuz flight. The craft was under the command of Alexey Ovchinin and crewed by Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams and flight engineer Oleg Skripochka. 
Ground views of the fiery re-entry of the Soyuz capsule and the burn-up of the non-protective modules.
Besides working on hundreds of science experiments during their stay, the Expedition 48 crew highlights include the installation of the inflatable Bigelow module for testing, the installation of a new International space dock mechanism, receiving robotic supply spacecraft, and two EVAs for servicing the station and installing the spacedock.
Back in the atmosphere. Soyuz hangs beneath a fully open parachute.
Touchdown took place in the steppes of Kazakhstan. With the departure of the Expedition 48 crew, Expedition 49 now begins on the ISS with the three remaining crew: Commander Anatoly Ivanishin (RosCosmos), Takuya Onishi (Japan Space Agency), and Kate Rubin (NASA). They will be reinforced later this month when another Soyuz lifts off from Baikonur, carrying Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Andrey Borisenko. The launch is scheduled for September 23rd.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Falcon Explodes on Pad; Satellite Destroyed

Explosion begins just below the payload section on the Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX suffered a dramatic setback Thursday September 1st when its Falcon 9 rocket exploded on pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. The payload, a communications satellite for Israel designated AMOS-6, was vaporized in the blast.  The explosion occurred during a firing test, when an unexplained detonation occurred in the 2nd stage liquid-oxygen (LOX) tank. SpaceX engineers worked diligently to put out the fires and secure the facility. According to reports in, SpaceX claims the explosion happened while fuel was loading into the LOX 2nd stage tank, at about 7:07 am Mountain Time. This is the second lost mission for SpaceX in 2 years, and there are many questions being raised about what went wrong while investigators do their best to find out why this tragedy happened.

The AMOS-6 payload section before the LOX fuel loading. Credit: SpaceX.
AMOS-6 was a communications satellite built by the Israeli firm Israel Aerospace Industries. It was supposed to take the place of the worn-out AMOS-2 satellite, at an orbital height of 22,000 miles.

Expedition 48 Ending on a High Note

ISS Commander Jeff Williams installing new High-Definition Camera. Credit: NASA.

Ending on a high note, indeed. Beyond the atmosphere high. On Thursday September 1st, Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams, assisted by flight engineer Kate Rubins, exited the Quest airlock and began a 6-hour, 48-minute EVA outside the ISS. Their mission was to install the first new high-definition camera on the Truss, and tighten bolts on a solar array joint. The EVA makes 5 spacewalks for Williams and the second for Rubins. In fact, they had just performed another EVA just 13 days earlier.

Difference between old camera and new.

Before the camera installation, the two astronauts worked on retracting the  TTCR radiation cooling array. Once it was collapsed and secured, a cover was put over the panels so it can be stored for a while, acting as backup in case it is needed. Then the camera was retrieved from the airlock, and they installed it on the P1 Truss at camera Point 9. While Williams finished the camera installation, Rubins moved over to one of the giant solar panel joints to tighten several of the bolts. Cameras had noticed vibration before this on some of the panel movements.

With the end of the EVA, the astronauts now begin preparing for the return of Expedition 48 to Earth on September 6, and the beginning of Expedition 49.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Astronaut Jeff WIlliams Breaks Space Endurance Record

Jeff Williams on the recent EVA to install the International Docking Adapter.
Expedition 48 Commander and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams broke the US record of being in space the longest, passing the recent record made by year-long ISS astronaut Scott Kelly, who had reached 520 days in space, cumulative, from his several missions and year-long stay on the ISS. On August 24, Williams passed that mark, and by the time he returns home on September 6, he will have 534 days to his record. Williams has been on 4 missions.

Williams displays patches from the missions he has been involved with through his career.

Williams first went into space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2000, on mission STS-101, a resupply mission to the new ISS, during which he performed his first EVA. In 2002, he also spent a week as a diver in the deep sea lab Aquarius. He returned to space in Expedition 13 in 2006 for a six month stay and performed two more EVAs. In September 2009, Williams returned for another 6-month stay on ISS and became commander of Expedition 22. He was the back-up astronaut for Scott Kelly on the 1-year mission, which comprised expeditions 43 through 46. He is on his 4th mission, serving first as flight engineer on Expedition 47, now as Commander of Expedition 48. He is scheduled to return home on Tuesday, September 6.

Dragon Returns to Earth

Dragon cargo capsule about to splash into the Pacific. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX achieved another successful conclusion to a Dragon cargo ISS mission Friday, when their Dragon space capsule safely splashed into the waters of the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. It was their 9th cargo resupply of the orbital station. Inside the capsule were returning samples form experiments in astronaut biology, crystal development, and other microgravity experiments that can only be performed on the space station.

Artist depiction of International Docking Adapter at end of docking node, about to receive a future docking from a manned capsule. Credit: NASA.

One of the main missions of this Dragon flight was the safe delivery of the International Docking Adapter to ISS. Mostly constructed by Boeing and RPG Energia, the adaptor will allow the safe and quick docking of the various national and commercial space capsule that are in devlopment or currently in use. On August 19, Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams and flight engineer Kate Rubins performed an EVA to help move the adapter from the Dragon storage section to its new docking port location.

 Kate Rubins works outside the ISS on an EVA to attach the new docking adapter.

 After a six-hour walk in space, the pair of astronauts finished their assembly tasks and returned to the station interior. The EVA was the 194th spacewalk working on assembly and ,aintenance of the ISS. The adapter they installed was the first of two such adapters, another one to be delivered on another flight. Starting with the first commercial crewed flight, possibly next year, and probably by SpaceX Dragon 2, Boeing and SpaceX capsules that are manned will use the new adapter ports.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

ISS Now at 5 Docked Spacecraft

The situation before the latest Dragon arrived. Dragon is now docked at the Harmony module.
It has been a busy July at the International Space Station, with one ship leaving and three ships arriving. It started at the beginning of July with the undocking of Progress M-62 from the Pirs module. Also designated Progress spacecraft MS-1, it was the first Progress mission using the new MS series of cargo ships. After undocking, engineers performed computer and navigation exercises with the craft to test the new systems which are also found on Soyuz spacecraft. Progress 62 was deorbited and burnt up in re-entry the next day.
Then on July 7, Soyuz MS-01 lifted off from Baikonur with the remaining crew of Expedition 48. This Soyuz was the first of the new, and ultimate, Soyuz space capsule modifications. It docked with the ISS on July 9 at the Rassvet module. These two flights were reported earlier this month.

Soyuz MS-01 docked at the Rassvet port.
The next two flights were unmanned cargo space missions. Uniquely, this was the first time that two robotic spacecraft were in pursuit of the ISS at the same time, and actually docked within a day and a half of each other.  First came the Russians.
Cargo flight Inbound.
Progress 64 (NASA designation) is the third of the new Progress MS vehicles (Russian designation MS-03), and was launched on July 16th. It docked at the open Pirs module on July 19th, taking the "Long Route" 2-day orbital chase to give engineers more test flight time, rather than fly the now normal 6 hour flight path.
Gotcha! Dragon is captured with the robotic arm.
The latest to arrive is the Dragon, mission CRS-9. It was launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral at pad LC-40 on July 18th. It docked at the US-built Harmony module on July 19. Significantly, it carries some important medical experiments, and especially the new Spacedock adaptor which will enable other spacecraft with the adapter standard to dock at the same port. 
That made for 3 spacecraft dockings within 11 days, a very good achievement for the crew of Expedition 48!